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The History Of The One Ring From Lord Of The Rings Explained

J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings is one of the most influential works of literature ever published, and one of the most popular books of the 20th century. Tolkien's epic saga, split into three volumes, tells the story of a world battling encroaching darkness, and a quest to destroy one powerful ring that could undo all that the forces of good had worked for. Over the course of the story a single golden ring, first introduced in Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, grows from a simple magical artifact into the most important and powerful object in the entire fictional world, one that kings and demigods have fought over, but only a small Hobbit can destroy. 

We all know the story of The Lord of the Rings and its many heroes, villains, and battles, but the story of the One Ring itself is a longer one, with a backstory that stretches all the way back to the beginning of Tolkien's fictional universe. Whether you want a crash course in Tolkien lore or you're just looking for a refresher, this is the story of the One Ring. 

The corruption of Mairon

Sauron, the "Lord of the Rings" referred to in the title of Tolkien's epic, was created before the material world began. Like Gandalf and Saruman, he was a Maiar, a divine being that was one of the lesser spirits (roughly equivalent to an angel) created by Eru in the time before the world was made. In his early life as a Maiar, he was called Mairon, and served the Smith of the Valar (a higher level of spirit created by Eru). During this time, he gained a great deal of knowledge in crafting and smithing, which he would later pour into making the Rings of Power.

Though he was pure when he was initially created, Mairon was ultimately seduced by the Valar known as Melkor, later called Morgoth. Morgoth was the original Dark Lord of Tolkien's world, and set about trying to conquer and destroy Middle-earth with Mairon as his lieutenant in the First Age. Eventually, Morgoth was defeated by the Valar and imprisoned outside the material world in the War of Wrath. Sauron repented, but would not face the judgement of the Valar, and instead fled and hid in Middle-earth, biding his time and building his power until he could make his next move. The Elves ultimately came to call him Sauron.

The Rings of Power

Centuries passed, and Sauron became obsessed with imposing his own sense of order over all the races of the world. To do this, he assumed a beautiful visage, calling himself "The Lord of Gifts," and visited the Elves as a supposed ambassador for the Valar. Though some of the Elves, including Galadriel and Elrond, distrusted him, the Elven smith Celebrimbor was taken with Sauron's gifts, and together they began forging the Rings of Power. Three were made for the leaders of Elves, seven for the leaders of Dwarves, and nine for the Leaders of Men. Meanwhile, in the volcanic fire of Mount Doom, Sauron forged the One Ring, pouring much of his own essence and power into it. The plan was to use the One to control the wearers of the Three, the Seven, and the Nine, thus enacting his will across all races.

Unfortunately for Sauron, the Elves wearing the Three were able to sense the presence of the One, and took their rings to avoid his control. Sauron raged against this, declaring war on the Elves in an effort to retake the Rings of Power. The War of the Elves and Sauron ended when an army of Men from Numenor beat back Sauron's forces. Sauron retreated back to Mordor to recover. The rings of the Seven and the Nine were all eventually recaptured, lost, or destroyed as a result of Sauron's efforts, but the Elven rings of the Three remained hidden from him.

The Fall of Numenor

More centuries passed, as Sauron continued to fortify his stronghold in Mordor and completed the tower of Barad-dur with the One Ring in his possession. Near the end of the Second Age, he was strong enough to again attempt conquest of Middle-earth, but he would not go unopposed. Ar-Pharazôn, the King of Numenor, was offended by Sauron's efforts to proclaim himself ruler of all Men, and marched against him with a massive army. Sauron surrendered and was taken back to Numenor as a prisoner, but he was not humbled by this supposed defeat.

In Numenor, Sauron again assumed a beautiful visage and seduced Ar-Pharazôn, taking advantage of the Numenorean's fear of death and convincing them that they should worship his old master, Morgoth. Sauron hoped to convince the Numenoreans to launch an attack against the Valar directly, claiming that Morgoth could one day save them from death.

It was here that Eru, the supreme creator of all, intervened. Ar-Pharazôn's armies were drowned, Numenor sank into the sea, and the Blessed Realm of the Valar was removed from the material world so Sauron could not reach it. Sauron's physical form was also destroyed in the fall of Numenor, but his spirit was able to return to Mordor, where he still kept the One Ring.

The second Ring Bearer

Though Ar-Pharazôn was corrupted by Sauron, there were some Numenoreans who remained faithful to the other Valar. Led by Elendil, these survivors escaped Numenor's fall and sailed to Middle-earth, where they established the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. Sauron watched the formation of these kingdoms, and his hatred of Elendil led him to attack the new kingdoms early in their lives. Elendil and his sons, including Isildur, knew they couldn't battle Sauron alone, and formed the Last Alliance with Elven leader Gil-galad to make a stand against the darkness.

The Alliance pushed Sauron back and laid siege to Barad-dur for years, until Sauron finally came out to join the fight himself. It was then that Isildur took up Narsil, his fallen father's sword, and cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand. Sauron was defeated, and the victory marked the end of the Second Age.

Isildur, now High King of Gondor and Arnor, kept the One Ring for himself rather than destroying it, seduced by its power. Two years into the Third Age, Isildur was killed during an Orc ambush. He tried to use the ring's power of invisibility to escape into the Anduin River, but the ring slipped from his fingers, exposing him to Orcish arrows. The One Ring was lost in the river, and would not be seen again for centuries.

Deagol and Smeagol

For more than 2,000 years, the One Ring was lost, fading into legend as the world moved on around it. That changed the day that two Hobbit cousins, Smeagol and Deagol, went fishing near the spot where Isildur was killed, and Deagol discovered a gold ring in the water. Smeagol was immediately drawn in by the One Ring's power, though he did not know what it was, and demanded that Deagol give it to him as a birthday present. Deagol resisted, and Smeagol responded by strangling his cousin to death and taking the One Ring.

Turned away by his family, Smeagol fled into the Misty Mountains and into seclusion with his ring, which he dubbed "My Precious." He spent 500 years alone in the dark, eating raw fish as his body and mind were twisted by the ring. Over time, he came to be known as "Gollum" because of a habitual, guttural sound he made in his throat. In time, he became so twisted that he developed two personalities: Smeagol, the side that still remembered the good in him, and Gollum, the dark side who only wanted to possess the ring.

Bilbo wins the ring

Gollum and his ring lived in seclusion for centuries, until one day a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins accidentally stumbled across the creature's lair while lost in the Misty Mountains. Bilbo, on a quest to the Lonely Mountain led by Thorin Oakenshield, found the ring in the dark, and when discovered by Gollum proposed a riddle contest with his life on the line. Gollum deduced that Bilbo had taken his Precious, but did not know that Bilbo had already discovered its power to grant invisibility. With the ring on his finger, Bilbo was able to follow a confused Gollum to the exit of his cave, where he escaped to rejoin Thorin and his dwarves.

Though he initially lied about the ring, Bilbo did eventually tell the wizard Gandalf the Grey more details about how came to possess it, and Gandalf was able to deduce that it was a Ring of Power that had a dangerous, seductive effect on its bearer. Still, Gandalf decided the ring was relatively safe in Bilbo's possession, and the Hobbit kept it in his possession at his home in the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Bilbo Baggins kept the Ring at his home for decades, intending to one day leave it to his nephew Frodo, with Gandalf's blessing. When the time came, though, Bilbo seemed reluctant to part with it. This, combined with other whispers of things like Nazgul roaming Middle-earth, led Gandalf to Minas Tirth in Gondor to do some research. Over time, he realized that Bilbo's ring was not just a magic ring, but the ring — Sauron's long-lost One Ring.

The danger of the One Ring itself, coupled with Gollum's recent emergence in Middle-earth and the return of the Ringwraiths, led Gandalf back to the Shire to warn Frodo. He told the young Hobbit to set out for the Eleven city of Rivendell, where Elrond was assembling a council of leaders of Elves, Dwarves, and Men to decide what to do next. At the Council of Elrond, it was decided that the ring must be taken to Mordor to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, as it was the only way to prevent Sauron from reclaiming it. Frodo volunteered to remain the ring bearer. He was joined in his quest by the Dunedain Ranger Aragon, the Gondorian Commander Boromir, the Elven Prince Legolas, the Dwarf Gimli, Gandalf himself, and three Hobbits: Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck, Peregrin "Pippin" Took, and Samwise "Sam" Gamgee, Frodo's gardener and best friend.

The Breaking of the Fellowship

The Fellowship set out from Rivendell, while agents of Sauron continued to pursue them and amass forces. Key among them was the wizard Saruman, who had betrayed Elves and Men and become a servant of the Dark Lord. As a result, the Fellowship soon faced danger and major losses. While cutting through the Mines of Moria, Gandalf was apparently killed during a battle with a Balrog. Later, when the Fellowship was attacked by Uruk-hai, Boromir was killed while defending the lives of Merry and Pippin. Before he died, Boromir succumbed to temptation and tried to take the ring from Frodo, which led Frodo to believe he needed to leave the Fellowship to spare the rest of them the burden of the ring's lure. Sam refused to let Frodo go alone, and so the two ventured off to Mordor together.

When Frodo and Sam became lost trying to find the way to Mordor, they realized that Gollum — who'd been set free after torture at the hands of Orcs — was following them, and hatched a plan to capture him. Gollum declared himself the servant of whoever possessed the ring, and Frodo and Sam ordered him to lead them to Mordor.

The Fall of the Ring

After briefly encountering Rangers of Gondor under the command of Boromir's brother Faramir — who let them pass on to Mordor — Frodo, Sam, and Gollum made their way into Sauron's dark realm. War erupted all around them, as the remainder of the Fellowship continued to battle Orcish armies in a bid to buy Frodo time to destroy the ring. Gollum, meanwhile, continued to plot the death of the Hobbits in order to retake the ring for himself.

In his bid to eliminate the Hobbits, Gollum led them to what he claimed was a shortcut to Mount Doom. In fact, he led them into the lair of the giant spider Shelob, who paralyzed Frodo with her venom. Sam killed Shelob and rescued Frodo, while Gollum seemingly vanished. Then, when Sam and Frodo finally reached the fires of Doom, Frodo gave in to the ring's power and put it on, refusing to destroy it. It was here that Gollum made his move, pouncing on Frodo and biting off the finger that held the ring. Gollum, reunited with his precious at last, was too lost in celebration to see where he was standing. He fell off the edge of the Crack of Doom and into the magma below, destroying himself and the One Ring. Sauron, whose essence was directly tied to the ring, was defeated, and all of his armies instantly collapsed.

Frodo recovered from his injuries and the darkness of the ring, and sailed into the West with the last Elves of Middle-earth.